Championship week has arrived in the NFL and just four teams remain: the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars from the AFC and the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles from the NFC. Many pundits have the Patriots as the heavy favorites, given their history of success and playoff experience at quarterback with Tom Brady. The other three teams have quarterbacks that are much less successful in their careers, to say the least. Still, the question remains whether the field can beat out the Patriots in Super Bowl LII. Digital Editor Connor Donahue and Associate Sports Editor Chris Hanna debate just that in this week’s edition of Point/Counterpoint.
Chris Hanna: I know it’s not the popular opinion, but I’m going to go with the field on this one. The Patriots are obviously a dynasty of a franchise and have arguably the best quarterback and coach in the game, but this team has some exploitable flaws. Notably, their defense was ranked 29th in total yards allowed per game in the regular season, giving up an average of 366 yards every Sunday. Sure, they’ve stepped it up a bit in the postseason thus far, but they faced the measly Tennessee Titans, a team that doesn’t exactly light up the scoreboard. Additionally, the Pats were tied for 31st with 5.7 yards allowed per play in the regular season. That matches up with the likes of the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants, none of whom made the playoffs. This defense isn’t great Boom, and that could cause New England some problems if they want to win another ring.
Besides the pitiful Patriots defense, people have to consider that some real contenders remain. The Vikings are playing out of their minds with Case Keenum at quarterback and clearly have something special going for them, based on the Minneapolis miracle last Sunday. Their wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen make for an elite duo, and running backs Jerrick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have stepped up in the absence of Dalvin Cook. Minnesota’s defense was the best in the league in total yards allowed per game, giving up just 275.9 yards on average, and features stars at every level of the defense, such as Everson Griffen, Eric Kendricks and Xavier Rhodes. Everybody knows defense wins championships and the Vikings have a great defense. To top it all off, Minnesota is hosting the Super Bowl, meaning fans will try to maximize home field advantage, even with ticket distribution for the Super Bowl allowing for fans of both teams to attend.
Connor Donahue: Patriots fans are known to be insufferable, over-confident and spoiled. I could go on and on. I’ll admit I’m guilty of all of this as well, though I’d have to be crazy not to be nervous for the rest of New England’s playoff run. But it still doesn’t take long to convince myself that New England can beat any combination of Bortles-Keenum or Bortles-Foles. The Patriots will play in their seventh consecutive AFC Championship, and they’ll be on their way to their third Super Bowl appearance in four years with a win. The experience is unmatched, and that’s why they’re the heavy favorite.
This season-long talk about the New England defense has been overhyped. Sometimes the problem with the Patriots is they’re usually so good at every aspect of the game that a weakness in one spot is blown out of proportion. Was the defense bad to start the season? Definitely. Did it get better? It’s the Patriots; of course it got better. New England has always had a “bend but don’t break” style defense, and it’s no different this year. The stats back it up: the Pats are 29 out of 32 in yards allowed per game (366) while ranking all the way up at fifth in the NFL, allowing just 18.5 points per game. The defense will be just fine.
Hanna: I haven’t even touched upon the Jaguars or Eagles yet, but both of these teams have a fantastic chance to make it to the Super Bowl and win in their own right. The Jags’ defense is just as good, if not better, than the Vikings’. They ranked second in yards allowed per game but are fantastic at creating turnovers to earn extra possessions. Jacksonville finished with 21 interceptions in the regular season, returning two of them for touchdowns, and forced 17 fumbles (12 recovered), returning five of them for touchdowns. The Jags ranked in the top five in each of these categories. Additionally, the Jaguars’ pass rush, affectionately known as Sacksonville, is absolutely unreal. Their team earned a total 55 sacks this season for the second-best mark in the league, but regularly wreaked havoc on quarterbacks with four rushers or less, enabling the defense to drop more players into coverage. Tom Brady has always been good at keeping his poise in the pocket, but the Jaguars might put him on the ground way more than he’d prefer. The Pats might not even reach the Super Bowl if the Jags’ defense plays up to their standard. Add in the running game of Leonard Fournette and an average performance from quarterback Blake Bortles, and the Jags have a really good chance at winning it all. The Jaguars have been heavily doubted, especially leading up to their Divisional Round matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, yet they’ve still conquered each task on their way to the AFC Championship. I would be a little worried if I’m a Pats fan.
The Eagles, on the other hand, are a team that has experienced some devastating injuries this season. Most notably, star quarterback Carson Wentz went down with an ACL injury, leaving Nick Foles as the Eagles’ starter. It’s not exactly optimal for a team that was running on all cylinders prior to the injury, and as such, Philly was an underdog as the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They responded to all the doubters by beating a talented Atlanta Falcons team looking to redeem themselves after their Super Bowl loss last year. Philadelphia’s running game features a solid and balanced committee of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. The receiving core, on the other hand, has a mix of experience, speed and red zone threats. The likes of Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith, Alshon Jeffery and Trey Burton give defenses fits and are hard to stop, even with Nick Foles as their quarterback.
Long story short: The New England Patriots are not invincible, and the three other teams competing for a spot in the Super Bowl are no slouches. You’d be smart to pick the field.
Donahue: We can talk about elite defenses all we want, and yes, for most teams the Jacksonville or Minnesota defenses would be too much. But other teams don’t have Thomas Edward Patrick Brady. Despite the loss Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger tore apart the Jags’ defense for 469 yards and five touchdowns. Imagine what Brady at home in Foxboro will do to this defense. And just so we’re on the same page, remember that Tennessee team that New England rolled over on Saturday? They beat the Jaguars this season. Twice. Jacksonville lost to the New York Jets as well. No team lead by Blake Bortles will come into Foxboro and beat New England in January.
There’s no way that Philadelphia beats Minnesota this Sunday, so I’m not even going to think about the prospect of playing them in Super Bowl LII. It will be a home game for the Vikings when New England comes to town on Feb. 4. That’s the only reason for concern for Patriots fans. The stadium atmosphere won’t be much different; most Super Bowl tickets go toward the wealthy, but the preparation for the game will be much easier for Minnesota. Vikings players will be able to sleep in their own homes, practice in their own facilities and not worry about travel plans for families.
This sort of advantage would be the downfall of every other team. But New England has gone through all sorts of adversity in the Super Bowl. From the goal line interception to the 28-3 comeback, New England has been through it all. The sixth ring is coming.